This 2002 DVD, copyrighted by WHYY in Philadelphia and narrated by Blythe Danner, consists of a one-hour documentary about Philadelphia-born painter, photographer, and sculptor Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and eight short films about different facets of his life and work. Photographs by and of Eakins, his paintings, letters, and sketches are interspersed with commentary by his biographer Elizabeth Johns, and by art historians and historians. The DVD describes Eakins’s training, art production, and aspects of his personal life.

Eakins was already an excellent draftsman, trained at Central High School in Philadelphia, but he first learned to paint during the three-plus years he spent in Paris at École des Beaux Arts. The practice there was to paint from live, nude models instead of from plaster casts, as was customary in Philadelphia. After Paris, he traveled to Spain where he visited Madrid and Seville. He developed great admiration for Goya, Ribera, and Velazquez. His letters home indicate how much he missed his family, yet also how seriously he worked on his art.

Returning to Philadelphia, Eakins set up his studio in his family's home on Mt. Vernon Street. He spent most of the rest of his life in his childhood home. Eakins painted portraits of athletes, for example, rowers and boxers. He chose sitters skilled in the arts, in medicine, business and industry, and painted family members. He always portrayed people and scenery he knew well, and athletes skilled in sports he himself loved. An excellent draftsman and highly trained painter, Eakins became a popular instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts had an institute policy that prohibited the use of live, nude models, especially in mixed classes, but Eakins rebelled against these rules by asking his students to model nude in the classroom and outside. Eakins also modeled in the nude himself. He photographed and painted his students in the nude. He believed that artists must study human anatomy through anatomy lectures, dissection, and observation of the body in motion. He assigned such tasks to his American students. Because of his rebellion against Academy rules, he was forced to resign.

Eakins finished his most ambitious painting, The Gross Clinic (annotated in this database) when he was 31 years old. The work, now recognized as an American masterpiece, was poorly received by his contemporaries. Much of his later production was portraits of people he asked to sit for him, including Walt Whitman. He painted a number of cowboy pictures during his stay at a North Dakota ranch where he was recuperating from depression. He also painted twenty-five portraits of Philadelphia physicians.

The last photo of Eakins in his studio, featured in the documentary, shows him seated with his back to the viewer and surrounded by the many pictures he had been unable to sell or which were rejected by his sitters. Eakins is now recognized as a major American artist, particularly in portraiture.



The documentary and the short films included on the DVD present an insightful and visually stimulating portrait of an American original who had much in common with his most famous sitter, Walt Whitman. The director does a fine job of portraying Eakins as a strong-willed American man of his own time and place.

Eakins had an intense interest in medicine, was a medical student at Jefferson Medical College, and studied anatomy and practiced dissection at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Jefferson Medical College, and at École des Beaux-Arts. He had a life-long obsession with the human body which was both his greatness and flaw: his photographs and portraits are beautifully accurate because of his close observation of the living human body. However, his obsession with nudity caused pain and scandal and hindered his career advancement.

The DVD in its entirety, the documentary, and some of the short films are an excellent teaching resource for Medical Humanities. Eakins's life and work show the close relationship between medicine and the arts, especially his observations on human anatomy. He might have become a surgeon, and his last, unfinished, portrait, is of a Philadelphia professor of anatomy, Dr. Edward Anthony Spitzka (Smithsonian). The Gross Clinic and The Agnew Clinic are Eakins's two most important works for medical students and professionals and deserve to be studied together, as they illustrate the medical advance of antisepsis.


The Gross Clinic was recently sold to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for sixty-eight million dollars, a record for a nineteenth-century American painting.

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